Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Prosecution failed to dispute expert testimony at habeas hearing on arson science

Dallas News editorialist Sharon Grigsby has a blog post about Ed Graf's habeas hearing in Waco last week, complementing Waco Tribune-Herald coverage over the weekend. Grigsby, who was childhood friends with Graf's sister, pointed to similarities between expert testimony in Graf's habeas appeal and the expert conclusions in the Todd Willingham case, providing links to documentation from Graf's fire experts and the Craig  Beyler report debunking arson investigator testimony used to convict Willingham. As Grits suggested last week, both cases involved the use of arson "indicators" that are no longer considered valid in the field, and in both cases the bulk of the probative evidence was hauled  off to the dump before it could even be examined. From Grigsby's post:
The arson investigators at the time had little understanding about, among other things, how fire burns. Bluntly, they seemed clueless about the science involved. One example: The arson investigator thought fire can burn straight down, through a plywood floor, when that’s just not the case.

Rodger [Jones], who has written a lot of editorials about the Cameron Todd Willingham case, says he sees remarkable similarities between the Graf reports and reports done on the controversial Willingham case. The initial arson investigators in Willingham’s case had the same poor grasp of the basics of fire science as they did in the Graf case.

In my opinion, the new analysis in the Graf case indicates the same use of “old wives’ tales” used by arson investigators in reaching their conclusions.
Notably, reported the Tribune-Herald, the McLennan County District Attorney declined to put on his own expert witness at the habeas hearing on Friday, leaving testimony by the two experts brought by Graf's legal team unrebutted. (In the interest of full disclosure, Graf's attorneys work with Grits' employers at the Innocence Project of Texas, though I have no knowledge of the case beyond published news reports.) Without the arson investigator testimony, Waco attorney Walter "Skip" Reaves told the paper, “I feel at minimum we will get a new trial out of (the hearing), and if we do, then I don’t think they’ll re-try it because I don’t think there is any evidence of arson.” If that prediction sounds optimistic, it's certainly bolstered by the fact that the McLennan DA failed to dispute the validity of expert testimony at the habeas hearing.

These old arson cases present a challenge for the Court of Criminal Appeals, which has struggled in determining whether convictions based on false forensic testimony may receive habeas corpus relief. However, without the culture-war circus surrounding capital punishment in the Willingham saga, cases like Graf's allow for a more thoughtful consideration of how to secure justice when junk science is presented as fact in the courtroom.

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